Another Unconvincing Appeal for Female Modesty

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Photo: Motofish Images/Corbis

Like a lot of Cut women, I currently love one-piece swimsuits. I’m chalking that up to the cyclical appeal of certain clothing items (high-waisted pants, platform shoes), which go from looking fresh, to actually flattering, to — inevitably — tired. But over at the Atlantic Sexes, Katelyn Beaty has a different take. Analyzing the high coverage swimwear line designed by former Power Ranger Jessica Rey, Beaty says the one-piece may symbolize a new, secular interpretation of the dubious virtue of modesty. It’s still Christian-friendly; Rey presented her theory of swimwear at Q Conference, a Christian ideas festival. But Rey's definition of modesty isn’t exactly about hiding women so they don’t tempt good, faithful men. By covering up women’s exteriors, Beaty and Rey argue, one-piece swimsuits reveal a woman’s interior.

“Here, there is freedom for individual women to practice modesty not primarily to preserve men's sexual purity, but to preserve their own dignity. To show in outward form the inward truth that they matter to society for their minds, their leadership, their passions, and their talents--talents that have nothing to do with how many heads they can turn. Modesty can become a form of female power. In Rey's words, this is "the power to be treated as an equal, to be seen as in control, and to be taken seriously. It seems the kind of power [women] are searching for is more attainable when they dress modestly.”

Beaty’s argument immediately reminded me of Lauren Shields, the “Modesty Experiment” blogger who adopted a nondenominational uniform of headscarves and long, loose-fitting garb for one year. Tired of dressing up every day, she made the switch after learning that the “Islamic dress is often a choice, and the women who make this choice are declining to endorse Western Imperialism and the sexualization of their bodies.” Shields told Salon:

“It was a desire to be considered for things other than what their hairstyle communicated, or whether their butts were shaped right — a desire that many people, not just women, share today.”  

Is covering up the best way for a woman to achieve recognition for something other than her appearance? I’d be interested in hearing a feminist case for modesty (I hate touching public transportation with my skin), but I’m not sure this is it. To me, these women are just trading one form of sexism for another. They know it’s no longer acceptable to blame women's appearances for men’s sexual transgressions, but it’s apparently still too much to ask that women be taken seriously if they choose also to sexualize themselves. It’s almost enough to make me think bikinis look kind of radical again.

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